Celebrating Angels and a Bygone Time
You sometimes hear off great tales about extra-ordinary people miraculously intervening in the timeline of one’s life path. Well here is an account of one of those tales with a particular glimpse into a bygone time.
At the end of the fifties industrialisation had not yet reached rural Ireland and the only reference to the economic word growth were the beautiful green fields inspired by the rain and of course weeds including nettles. At least that was the recollection of a ten year old boy with a premature desire to become famous, conquer the world and leave this god forsaken place.
The reality was different, here was a very beautiful idyllic place occupied by friendly and content people with little in relation to resources but inflicted by chronic unemployment that effected local farmers and the rural community much more than city folk. The national economy was sluggish with dwindling activity and hindered the possibility of providing a modicum of comfort for one’s families. As young children we realised very quickly where our bread was buttered and appreciated wholeheartedly any inspiration or generosity dished out.
In our situation intervention was in the guise of Aunt Angel whom we perceived as being a blessing in disguise or the nearest thing to a real angel – as we would joked. Angel was my mum’s older sister and best friend and lived in our grandparent’s lovely old house down the road on the edge of the village. She had an easy life, so we thought with lots of money, no children and lucky for us a love of dogs, horses and children in that order. She popped over to us every other week and infused excitement into the mundane drudgery of our traditional ways. Of course our lives were not boring in the sense of things to do on a large rambling farm but more because we had strict routines and chores out of sight of friends and the village shop. Angel’s arrival was clearly marked by the distinct noise of her Morris Mini Clubman, light green rumbling up the avenue always on a Friday just after school, sometimes before a national holiday and of course before our birthdays. Now that car was something else, the ‘bees-knees’ we thought compared to our old Ford Anglia and of course much more expensive. It never failed to please me, the look, the shape, that light green rather than black colour and those long windows that presented a clear perfect view of the passing world.
Angel had particular and sometimes peculiar ways and she loved to pass on wise tales and family wisdom from our very successful grandfather who accumulated ‘a pile’ over his lifetime that dwindled away during the war years. One of her exciting things or fetish was the ceremony of wrapping presents. She would wrap them in colourful paper in an elaborate way that obviously demanded a lot of time and probably cost a lot too. But the effect was dramatic and successful as it pleased us in a caring and opulent way. We had to wait days before we could touch or open the presents and that led to speculation and small bets taken by our older brother who always seemed to win every time. Our parent’s presents didn’t create that much fuss as we kind of knew what could be afforded and we steered them into what we wanted.
To get back to the farm, it was what you would call a very traditional entity with almost no modern technology for that time apart from a tractor and an electric milk machine and would be classed as a sustainable organic venture by today’s standards. Crops were rotated, manure from the pigs, cows, hens and cattle were used to fertilise the fields and there was plenty of natural scrub land that the cattle loved to graze. Our animals really had a good wild sort of life and wandered whereever they wanted creating little paths all around the farm that we loved to run and play in. The food we produced was of the purest quality and I’m sure resulted in all of us being still very healthy and more resistant to illness.
Availability of labour was a key to successful farming and the only way before mechanisation to produce a lot of produce. During these times jobs were scarce and money even scarcer so people from the village and travellers were always calling to our door asking for seasonal work. All our tillage required manual work and cleaning and farm manure had to be spread over the fields so a lot of working hands were needed.
We slaughtered a pig once a year and cured and stored the bacon in salted barrels. We made homemade delicacies including sausages and black pudding from the blood, entrails and offal. It was ridiculously fascinating to think of killing a pig as we were not allowed to see the procedure. But being kids we somehow managed to find a crack in the wall and sneak a peep at the gruesome event. There was a white sheet usually from my grandmother’s bed spread over a large wooden table used only for killing which for some reason reminded me of the local church and alter. In fact the whole processes of butchering, curing and salting the pig meat was a kind of ritual in itself. Our uncle Richard from across the river in Clogga joined in at this event and added further excitement. There was ample meat for both families as the biggest and fattest pig was chosen. These were busy times for both our families. Tempers at least of the grown-ups ran high because of the work to be done and only sixteen year olds and older were allowed to help out.
Times were bleak during that period my father would say, money was scarce and even though we had a large farm of over a hundred acres, profits were scarce and we could only afford the bare necessities. We recycled and reused almost everything nothing went to waste and the dreaded pass me downs, especially my sisters knickers were handed down to me and my brothers as we did not waste on new cloths. Food wise we grew almost every vegetable possible potatoes, carrots, cabbage, turnips, peas and all sorts of fruit including apples, pears, blackcurrants, raspberries and rhubarb. We even made our own brown bread from home grown corn and jams, spreads from our fruit and honey. We mended our own clothes and were careful with our possessions to make them last longer. There was literally no waste, it was regarded as a sin to spoil or misuse anything and frugal ways were endemic. We accepted all offerings as we believed in reusing and knew we may not get the opportunity again, that’s so different than today’s abundance and wastefulness. I remember dividing and sharing the ice cream wrapper of Sunday ice cream not to waste the ice scrapings and I thing we valued things much more.
Presents were another story, being very scarce particularly in a family of nine children so you can imagine how serious this ‘territory’ was for each and every one of us. Now that’s where Aunt Angel entered the equation of life. She was a fair person and had no favourites, so we were all treated equally. My Mum’s meagre income came from fixed rent from the inheritance of a family house and a bit from the eggs that Aunty Angel bought every other week. She also received a young calf from my dad every year that she fatted for market. The price she fetched at the Autumn market for her now grown calf affected the size and quality of our Christmas presents.
Aunt Angel had a generous husband, Tom, who when we visited sometimes gave us sixpence to spend on whatever we wanted in their local shop down the road, a city shop. Angel and Tom both had a passion for dogs and horses and they went to all the horse shows and dog competitions throughout Ireland. They always brought one of us in turn to the dog show to help look after Chablis their large fancy dog that we secretly knew was Angel's ‘real’ child. We knew she would have liked children and we sometimes felt sorry for her but also knew that if there were children we would not have been treated so well. In return for our not so hard labour we got two and six pence for the day, lunch, treats and of course lots of ‘nice’ attention, coming from a large family that was welcome. We regarded the procedures on that day looking after the dog as fun, a good time rather than work and superior to farm work and chores. Having five brothers and four sisters the time between our turns for the dog show felt long and more precious and a big event in our lives. Every other month when a show came around we knew that we had to wait many times before our turn came up, it felt like years but we knew it would arrive.
Angel’s passion for dogs was incredible, especially Chablis her favourite dog of all times and sometimes I thought it would be nicer to be Angel’s dog, just to get that undivided attention, care and lots and lots of things that her 'large bunch of joy' got.